|Sherlock Holmes character|
|First appearance||"A Scandal in Bohemia"|
|Created by||Sir Arthur Conan Doyle|
Irene Adler is a fictional character in the Sherlock Holmes stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. She was first featured in the short story "A Scandal in Bohemia", published in July 1891. She is one of the most notable female characters in the Sherlock Holmes series, despite appearing in only one story, and is frequently used as a romantic interest for Holmes in derivative works, though in the story it is made clear that Holmes is only impressed by her resourcefulness and intelligence.
Fictional character biography
According to "A Scandal in Bohemia," Adler was born in New Jersey in the 1850s. She followed a career in opera as a contralto, performing at La Scala in Milan, Italy, and a term as prima donna in the Imperial Opera of Warsaw, Poland, indicating that she was an extraordinary singer (in reality, there was no Imperial Opera in Warsaw). It was there that she became the lover of Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein, Grand Duke of Cassel-Felstein and King of Bohemia, who was staying in Warsaw for a period. The King describes her as "a well-known adventuress" (a term widely used at the time in ambiguous association with "courtesan") and also says that she had "the face of the most beautiful of women and the mind of the most resolute of men". The King eventually returned to his court in Prague. Adler, then in her late twenties, retired from the opera stage and moved to London.
On 20 March 1888, the King makes an incognito visit to Holmes in London. He asks the famous detective to secure a photograph of Adler and him together. The 30-year-old King explains to Holmes that he intends to marry Clotilde Lothman von Saxe-Meiningen, second daughter of the King of Scandinavia; the marriage would be threatened if his prior relationship with Adler were to come to light. He also reveals he had hired burglars to attempt to retrieve it twice, had Adler herself waylaid, and her luggage stolen, to no avail.
Using his considerable skill for disguise, Holmes traces her movements, learning much of her private life and, notably, stands witness to her marriage to Godfrey Norton, an English lawyer. Holmes then disguises himself as an elderly cleric and sets up a faked incident to cause a diversion that is designed to gain him access to Adler's home and to trick her into revealing where the picture is hidden. Adler treats him, as the supposed victim of a crime outside her home, with spontaneous care and solicitude. At the moment she gives away the location of the photograph, she realises she has been tricked. She tests her theory that it is indeed Holmes, of whom she had been warned, by disguising herself as a young man and cheekily wishing him good night as he and Watson return to the Baker Street flat.
When Holmes returns the next morning with Watson and the King to demand the return of the photograph, he finds Adler gone, along with her new husband and the original photo, which has been replaced with a photograph of her alone as well as a letter to Holmes, explaining how she had outwitted him, but also that she is happy with her new husband, who has more honourable feeling than her former lover. She adds that she will not compromise the King and has kept the photo only to protect herself against any further action the King might take. In the face of this and the King's arrogant statement that it was a "pity that she was not on my level", Holmes realises then that Adler was the wronged party rather than the King and asks, when offered a reward by the King, only for the photograph that Adler had left.
At the time that Conan Doyle meant Watson to be writing the story it is unclear if Irene Adler is alive or dead, since she is referred to as 'the late Irene Adler', though this could merely be a comment on her change in name that came with her change in marital status.
Adler's career as a theatrical performer who becomes the lover of a powerful aristocrat had several precedents. The most obvious is Lola Montez, a dancer who became the lover of Ludwig I of Bavaria and influenced national politics. Montez is identified as a model for Adler by several writers.
Closer to home is the singer Lillie Langtry, the lover of Edward, the Prince of Wales. As Julian Wolff points out, it was well known that Langtry was born in Jersey (she was called the "Jersey Lily") and Adler is born in New Jersey. Langtry had later had several other aristocratic lovers, and her relationships had been speculated upon in the public press in the years before Doyle's story was published.
Irene Adler is also mentioned in the following stories:
- "A Case of Identity"
- "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle"
- "The Five Orange Pips" (probably; see below)
- "His Last Bow"
In "The Five Orange Pips", Holmes mentions that he has been outwitted four times, thrice by a man and once by a woman. Since "The Five Orange Pips" is set in September 1887, before "A Scandal in Bohemia", which is set in March 1888, Holmes could not be referring to the specific appearance of Irene Adler during "A Scandal in Bohemia" if the chronology is correct. Doyle had made clear chronological mistakes in other Holmes stories, and no other woman to be held in the same regard by Holmes or to have outsmarted Holmes is ever mentioned. Also, in "A Case of Identity", Watson mentions that Adler is the only person he has ever known to have outmaneuvered Holmes.
Holmes' relationship to Adler
Adler earns Holmes' unbounded admiration. When the King of Bohemia says, "Would she not have made an admirable queen? Is it not a pity she was not on my level?" Holmes replies scathingly that Adler is indeed on a much different level from the King (by which he means higher—an implication lost on the King).
The beginning of "A Scandal in Bohemia" describes the high regard in which Holmes held Adler:
To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer — excellent for drawing the veil from men's motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his. And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.
This "memory" is kept alive by a photograph of Irene Adler, which had been deliberately left behind when she and her new husband took flight with the embarrassing photograph of her with the King. Holmes had then asked for and received this photo from the King, as payment for his work on the case.
In his fictional biographies of Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe, William S. Baring-Gould puts forth an argument that Adler and Holmes meet again after the latter's supposed death at Reichenbach Falls. They perform on stage together incognito, and become lovers. According to Baring-Gould, Holmes and Adler's union produces one son, Nero Wolfe, who would follow in his father's footsteps as a detective.
Irene Adler appears as an opera singer in The Canary Trainer, where she encounters Holmes during his three-year 'death' while he is working as a violinist in the Paris Opera House, and asks him to help her protect her friend and unofficial protege, Christine Daaé, from the 'Opera Ghost'.
A series of mystery novels written by Carole Nelson Douglas features Irene Adler as the protagonist and sleuth, chronicling her life shortly before (in the novel Good Night, Mr. Holmes) and after her notable encounter with Sherlock Holmes and which feature Holmes as a supporting character. The series includes Godfrey Norton as Irene's supportive barrister husband; Penelope "Nell" Huxleigh, a vicar's daughter and former governess who is Irene's best friend and biographer; and Nell's love interest Quentin Stanhope. Historical characters such as Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, Alva Vanderbilt and Consuelo Vanderbilt, and journalist Nellie Bly, among others, also make appearances. In the books, Douglas strongly implies that Irene's mother was Lola Montez and her father possibly Ludwig I of Bavaria. Douglas provides Irene with a back story as a pint-size child vaudeville performer who was trained as an opera singer before going to work as a Pinkerton detective.
In a series of novels by John Lescroart, it is stated that Adler and Holmes had a son, Auguste Lupa, and it is implied that he later changes his name to Nero Wolfe.
In the 2009 novel The Language of Bees by Laurie R. King, it is stated that Irene Adler, who is deceased when the book begins, once had an affair with main character Sherlock Holmes and gave birth to a son, Damian Adler, an artist now known as The Addler.
In R. Allen Leider's 2011 short story "The Extraordinary Case of the Wicca-Girl" (Hellfire Lounge anthology #3), 21st century Witch Queen and MI-6 secret agent Druscilla Marie d'Lambert travels back in time to 1887 to help Sherlock solve the Ripper murders and enlists Irene Adler in disguise to infiltrate the feminist anarchist organization Sisters of Umbra to which the Ripper's victims belonged. Adler then becomes a target of the Ripper and is ultimately used as bait to trap the villain. In the course of the investigation, Adler and Druscilla engage in a civilized rivalry for Holmes's attentions.
In the 1946 film Dressed to Kill, Adler is mentioned early in the film when Holmes and Watson discuss the events of "A Scandal in Bohemia".
In the 1976 film Sherlock Holmes in New York, Adler (Charlotte Rampling) helps Holmes and Watson to solve a bank robbery organised by Holmes' nemesis, Professor Moriarty, after he takes her son hostage to prevent Holmes from investigating the case (Holmes and Watson later rescue the boy).
She is portrayed by Rachel McAdams in the 2009 film Sherlock Holmes. In that film, she is a skilled professional thief, as well as a divorcée. It is known that she knew Holmes prior to the events of the film that could have been a story based on "A Scandal" as Sherlock has in his possession a photograph of her. She and Holmes are depicted as having a deep and mutual infatuation with each other, while at the same time, she is employed by his future nemesis Professor Moriarty.
McAdams reprised the role in the 2011 sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows in which Moriarty appears to kill her with a poison that imitates the symptoms of tuberculosis, after realizing that she may still maintain her feelings towards Holmes. Holmes receives a handkerchief (with the initials I.A.) on which Adler's blood is stained; this is given to him by Moriarty. While heading to France, Watson discovers the handkerchief and Holmes throws it overboard in grief.
Irene Adler was portrayed by Inga Swenson in the Broadway musical, Baker Street which also starred Fritz Weaver as Sherlock Holmes. According to the liner notes of the original cast album, the story makes extensive use of the story "A Scandal in Bohemia". The play opened at the Broadway Theatre, New York City, on February 16, 1965 and ran for 313 performances. The show's book was by Jerome Coopersmith and the music and lyrics were by Marian Grudeff and Raymond Jessel; the production was directed by Harold Prince.
Television and radio
Irene Adler is featured in Soviet director Igor Maslennikov's made-for-TV 5-part film series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. She appears in the fourth part, based upon The Sign of the Four (main storyline) and A Scandal in Bohemia (flashback), in which Holmes and Watson, while waiting for the new information on his current case, remember their encounter with Irene Adler (played by Larisa Soloveva).
In the 1984 made-for-TV film The Masks of Death, a widowed Irene Adler, played by Anne Baxter, is a guest at Graf Udo Von Felseck (Anton Diffring)'s country house where Holmes (Peter Cushing) and Watson (John Mills) are investigating the supposed disappearance of a visiting prince. Although Holmes initially considers her a suspect, she proves her innocence and becomes an ally.
In "The 10 Li'l Grifters Job," the season 4 episode 2 of Leverage, the character Sophie portrays Irene Adler at the Murder Mystery Masquerade.
In 2007's BBC Television production Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars, Irene Adler (portrayed by Anna Chancellor) is the main villain of the piece and one of Sherlock Holmes' archenemies instead of a potential love interest.
In "A Scandal in Belgravia", the first episode of the 2012 second series of the BBC Sherlock, Irene was portrayed by Lara Pulver opposite Benedict Cumberbatch. A dominatrix who serves high-end clients, she is initially sought to recover incriminating photos she possesses of a liaison between her and a female member of the Royal Family, along with various other incriminating documents kept in a password-protected phone. Unlike Doyle's original tale, in which she is American, in this version she is English. At the episode's conclusion, she is presumed killed by those she failed to provide with the information, but is secretly saved by Sherlock. She makes a cameo appearance as a figment of Sherlock's imagination in the episode "The Sign of Three".
In CBS's 2012 adaptation of the Holmes universe, Elementary, Adler is initially an unseen character, mentioned first in the sixth episode as a former love interest of Sherlock. It is later explained that she apparently died at the hands of a serial killer known as "M". It was this event that fuelled Sherlock's descent into drugs and set up the overall story for the show. In the twelfth episode of the series, Sherlock confronts M, revealed to be Sebastian Moran, and is told that Irene was not killed by Moran, but by his employer: Moriarty. In the episode "Risk Management" it is explained that Irene was an American art restorer living in London. In the end Holmes discovers she is still alive, having been kept in a dilapidated house by Moriarty for reasons unknown. Natalie Dormer played Adler in the final three episodes of the season. In the last of these episodes she reveals to Sherlock that she is in fact Moriarty herself, having employed a male lieutenant to impersonate "Moriarty" during earlier conversations and faked her own death to drive Sherlock away from investigating her activities. She drops her American accent, now speaking with an English accent. She considers herself superior in intellect and resourcefulness to Holmes, but refuses to kill him, supposedly because she considers him "a work of art." In the end, however, Watson concludes that a love for Sherlock is her real motivator. Sherlock and Watson use Irene/Moriarty's feelings for him to trick her into confessing to her crimes on tape, Watson having the idea to exploit her ego by creating the impression that Holmes has fallen off the wagon once again so that she will come to gloat.
In season 2 episode 12 of Elementary, "The Diabolical Kind": After a young girl is kidnapped, Sherlock and Joan recognize the voice of the kidnapper as "faux-riarty,” one of Irene/Moriarty’s lieutenants. Sherlock reveals he’s been writing to Irene/Moriarty and, as part of her deal with the feds, she is brought in to consult on the case. Two policemen are killed as Simon (aka "faux-riarty”) obtains the sketches of the suspects that Irene/Moriarty drew, and Sherlock notices a code in the drawing and immediately suspects Irene/Moriarty’s involvement. In cracking the codes, Sherlock learns the kidnapped girl is Irene/Moriarty’s daughter. Irene/Moriarty escapes custody, finds and kills Simon to rescue the girl, but almost dies in the process. 
In the 2013 Russian drama Sherlock Holmes, Irene Adler takes a major role in the series and is portreyed by Lyanka Gryu.
- Piya Pal-Lapinski, The exotic woman in nineteenth-century British fiction and culture: a reconsideration, UPNE, 2005, p.71.
- Christopher Redmond, In Bed with Sherlock Holmes: Sexual Elements in Arthur Conan Doyle's Stories, Dundurn Press, 2002, pp.57-66. Redmond explains the term as implying "something between a social climber and a high class tart".
- Christopher Redmond, Sherlock Holmes Handbook, Dundurn Press Ltd., 30 Oct 2009, p. 51; The new annotated Sherlock Holmes: The adventures of Sherlock Holmes ; The memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, W.W. Norton, 2005, p.17.
- The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle, Random House, 2010.
- "A Few Words about theatres in Warsaw, or where Sang Irene Adler" by Joanna Polatynska with Catharina Polatynska"
- "Irene Adler: Sherlock, Lupin And I"